Sand Dunes and Tow Trucks and Clams (Oh My)

It was tricky to cut the cord that staying at my parents’ house had become.  Creature comforts, a non-public bathroom, my parents…  On the flip side, though, I had pictured the next phase of our trip, the Southern California Beach phase, ever since we started planning, even when the trip was still theoretical.  My thinking went something like this:  When would be the absolute best time to beach hop down the California coast?  October, definitely.  Where should we stay?  Enough places to get a good feel of the West Coast’s variety, but with some places at which we can get in the water, particularly near the end of that stretch.  A surfing lesson was high on the list of priorities, as somehow I had managed a Southern California beach-heavy childhood and adolescence without ever getting up on a surfboard, or even trying.  A travesty I fully intended to remedy.  I had been looking forward to all of this, and to introducing it all to my family.

Pismo Beach, on the Central Coast, is not a particularly good place to surf, I think, but it was a multiple-visit childhood camping spot at which my last visit was probably age 13 or 14.  It’s a pretty unique place in that there is a huge field of sand dunes on which people ride ATVs and dune buggies.  What’s more, it’s one of the few (possibly the only?) California beach(es) on which you’re allowed to drive your car and camp right on the sand.

My memories of early camping trips are hazy due to their temporal distance, but the one that stands out most was when we took my Dad’s parents along with us.  My sense of it is that, like much else back then, Pismo had much more of a “Wild West” feel, with the corresponding lack of oversight.  I’m speculating here, but it was the late ‘70s / early ‘80s — these were the days when people drove around town with 3 people in a 2-person convertible, seatbelt-less, smoking, and with an open beer, and if you passed a cop they’d wag their finger at you while smiling.  Or so I’m told.  I imagine there were likely some controlled substances mixing with the all-day-all-night dune buggying.  And here I should be perfectly clear — I’m not talking about my parents’ activities.  All we did was camp on the beach and do some hiking and clamming.  We didn’t even have a dune buggy.  We were the outliers though — everyone else, it seemed, was there to hit the dunes.  Anyway, my grandfather wasn’t particularly hip to the constant buzz of the engines and the occasional sweep of the headlights across our heavy canvas tent’s walls.  “Oh, this is great. Yup, this is just great.  Fantastic.  Love this.  Oh hey, THAT one was close.  Wow.  Great.  Yup” and variations on that theme went on until I drifted off to sleep and likely for hours thereafter.

As well as the dunes, there are the large and tasty “Pismo clams” which can only be found there, and a decent little town to explore as well.  I had been looking forward to getting back.

My assumption was that there were no motorhomes allowed on the sand.  Not that it mattered, as there was zero chance I would be taking Davista out there.  So we booked at an RV park further to the north, with access to the beach.  It ended up being quite… I was going to say “commercial,” but that’s not exactly what I’m looking for.  “KOA-esque” is closer.  I guess what’s happening is with a bit of RV-ing experience under my belt now, I’m starting to mentally group RV campgrounds into 4 types:

Type 1 – Primitive and pretty.  This is what you tend to find at National Parks.  No hookups (i.e. electrical, water, sewer) and not really designed for RVs, but they tolerate your presence and have a few sites that can accommodate your length.  They’re going for max scenic beauty and peace and quiet.  You’re a hindrance to that, but they’ll let you in anyway.  They’re popular, because National Parks.

Type 2 – Also pretty and government-run, but RV-friendly.  This seems to be more the State Park model.  Sometimes city or county park.  Full hookups, large and level parking spots, picnic table and fire ring, and lots of space.  Your neighbors aren’t right next to you looking into your window through theirs.  I really like these.

Type 3 – Commercial “Kampground”.  These are the KOAs and many of the private RV parks.  Generally they’re not big because they had to buy their land, so they pack you in tightly, but they try to make up for that with creature comforts like cable TV, wifi, a game room, a general store, etc.  They also often try to create a party-ish atmosphere it seems.  These are the most expensive.

Lastly, the Type 4s – the No Go.  Basically a Type 3 that isn’t trying.  They give you a parking lot with the bare minimum of space, a power hookup and some allegedly clean water, ask for your money, then turn a blind eye to whatever happens next.  These are sketchy and easily recognizable (and avoided).

There are outliers and hybrids among all these groups of course, but hey, stereotypes can be useful.

So our campground in Pismo was firmly a Type 3.  The kids loved it.  Go figure, I guess they value the creature comforts more than the space and the scenery.

I forgot to mention the drive.  Here it is:


Not terribly scenic, and a shame to miss out on Highway 1 and Big Sur to our west, but we did get a chance to talk about El Camino Real and the California missions from back in its Spanish colonial days.  El CamFirebolt was the only one who took much interest in that discussion, so I pointed out the El Camino Real road markers with the hanging bell,   and she now says “coooollll” whenever I point out another to her.

The access to the beach I mentioned turned out to be an asterisked access.  There was a small set of dunes between our RV park and the beach so we couldn’t actually see the water, but at the access gates to the dunes were long-winded signs explaining that the RV park’s management had no control over the flow of Pismo Creek, and we know you used to be able to walk right to the ocean, but with shifting tidal flats and geology and erosion blah blah yadda yadda bottom line: you have to walk a half mile either way or cross this stagnant body of water of indeterminate depth in order to reach the beach you’re looking at right in front of you.


Good thing we brought kayaks!

So we ended up with our own semi-private beach after we inflated our flotilla and ferried our beach gear across the creek delta (which ended up being entirely wade-able, as long as you didn’t worry about what you might be stepping on).  A squadron of pelicans doing their thing entertained us nearby, there was great kite flying, and the beachcombing was entirely decent as well, though the water was still a bit cold for full-immersion swimming.

IMG_6652.JPGDespite our having just left their house, my parents met us there on the first night, having just driven down to Malibu to catch my nephew’s water polo match.  This was the first time we shared our new “home” with anyone else, which was its own entertainment, both for us and for the kids.  They declined our offer to make beds out of the dining room table and couch and opted to sleep in the back of their 4Runner instead, which I did feel a little bad about.  Had there been more room I’d have set up a tent and slept out & offered up the bedroom (or at least offered them the tent and sleeping pads), but this wasn’t that kind of campground.  They did ok though; they’re troopers.  We even managed to stay up late and watch the football game on our outside TV while bundled against the cold, which was more fun than it sounds.  I guess I’m more thankful for those creature comforts than I let on.

Pismo was a short stay by design (only 2 nights), but I discovered on the second day that my Dad had been not-so-secretly looking forward to driving on the beach again even more than I had.  So we made plans to drive their 4Runner and our Outback down to the dunes to “check it out.”  We didn’t really define what that meant, and it became clear pretty quickly that this was our (i.e. my dad and I) thing, so our lady-folk sorta stepped aside and went along with it.  They brought some beach gear and games and probably a snack or two, but otherwise just enjoyed the show.  Somewhere deep in my lizard brain I had a notion that maybe we’d rent a dune buggy or a couple ATVs for a bit, but I don’t think I ever voiced that ahead of time.  I just wanted to go play.

So off we went in our cars, through the state park’s gate and onto the sand, with nothing but a cheerful “You’re 4 wheel drive, right?” from the ranger at the booth.  “Of course!”

Almost immediately I questioned our wisdom.  It took about a minute.  I’m sure Tacco had been questioning it all morning.

What I remembered from the Pismo of my youth was a long, flat, stretch of fairly hard sand.  I was far too young to drive, but I do remember that it looked quite easy to drive on.  I also remember the smattering of tents inland from where you drive, and the dunes further inland from that.  What I saw was entirely different.  It was soft sand – VERY soft and somewhat deep sand, with the waves washing both themselves and random blobs of seaweed right onto the area in which we’d be driving.  There was nothing hard or flat about it, and we had to maintain quite a bit of momentum just to keep moving.  We did ok initially, but it was a rough ride and required significant maneuvering to avoid some of the bigger hills of sand and piles of seaweed, not to mention the people who insisted on walking on this same beach, as if it were, like, a beach (c’mon, can’t ya see I’m driving here?!).  Maneuvering while maintaining momentum is a tricky dance on sand.  It’s also disconcerting to have sandy saltwater from the remains of a wave that just broke come splashing onto your windshield.  It seemed prudent to drive near the water’s edge as the sand only got deeper and softer as you got further inland, but I couldn’t help but imagine the tide rising to swamp our car once we inevitably got stuck.  “Why do they allow this?!?”

And where were the dunes?  And the tents?  I quickly assumed they were further south, but after about a mile of swerving uncomfortably down the beach I still couldn’t see them, and began picturing not only having to turn around and drive back across that same stretch, but imagining how far I’d have to be towed once I dug into a patch of sand from which I couldn’t extricate us.  I wish I had more pictures of this, but we were all quite busy.  Here’s the one I have of us from my mother in the car behind us, no doubt listening to my dad imploring me not to slow down.


Alas, to no avail.  My nagging doubts eventually overcame our momentum, and I pulled over away from the ocean to stop and figure out what on Earth we were doing.  Mistake.  Stuck.  Of course.

I went back to talk to my Dad, who had been having a much easier (but not easy) time in his 4Runner, and learned that this stretch of beach was indeed not the dune / camping stretch, but also that there was another beach access point just about a half mile ahead, so even if we hadn’t wanted to continue past it into the actual camping area, if I had pressed on we would have been able to drive back off the beach there.

What I also quickly learned, and is probably obvious by now to any observant reader, is that we were in no danger of being swamped by the high tide, we were driving on Pismo Beach right at high tide, which is precisely the wrong time to drive on Pismo Beach.  An hour later or an hour earlier and we’d have been just fine, happily trucking down the previously alluded to stretch of hard, flat sand.

After some scenario gaming, we opted to try to push the Outback forward enough with the 4Runner’s front bumper to allow it to get moving on its own again, and then make it to the next access point, where we’d drive back off the beach and proceed to Plan B.  My clutch’s nasty burning smell informed me in no uncertain terms that it didn’t like what we were doing, but ultimately our scheme worked and we made it to the dunes/camping access point only to find a sizable audience of locals with lawn chairs set up, watching the spectacle of Pismo tourists and sand-driving noobs attempting to drive themselves off the beach at high tide and cheering the several who got stuck.  I guess that’s a Thing there.

Suffice it to say we never made it to the dunes, but we did spend quite an enjoyable afternoon set up with our towels, a picnic table, and some tasty local seafood, complete with clams, at show center for the parade of surprisingly large RVs shimmying through the sand and muck.  Evidently they allow them on the sand after all!  There is also clearly a booming tow-truck (and tractor) industry in Pismo, too, and the armada of flashy tow vehicles headed out to rescue hapless RVers received a fair share of the applause, hoots, and hollers as well.


Overall, despite the missteps, Pismo was a great success, at least as assessed by the kiddos.  They had a blast.  And often that translates to a parental blast as well, we’re finding.


Tomorrow we leave for Carpinteria State Beach just south of Santa Barbara, where I managed to snag a reservation at one of the few no-kidding beachfront sites for four nights.  I feel its pull.

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